Fury & Passion In Extremis
CoC chats to Devin Townsend
by: Jackie Smit
As a music journalist it's always easy to get caught up in the use of overblown narratives and fancy analogies in order to illustrate one's staunch objectivity and professionalism. When it comes to someone like Devin Townsend however -- for me those traits, while admittedly vital in gaining credibility as a writer in this space, fly straight out the window. From the moment that Strapping Young Lad's _City_ turned my brain to putty, I have been hooked on Townsend's deeply emotive soundscapes, which have probably affected me more intensely than anything else I have come across in my twenty five years so far. You can appreciate therefore that I didn't need to be asked twice when the opportunity to interview the man himself was presented to me, and I can tell you straight off the bat that the rumors are true: Devin is quite a character. But more so, he is a remarkably sincere and passionate human being, and in meeting him, I have probably gained a perspective on his work that few others will be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do. I do hope however, that this article highlights just what a remarkable entity he is in the music industry today. And just in case my review of Strapping Young Lad's recent _Alien_ opus hasn't made it quite clear enough: it looks like his best is still to come.

CoC: You've often said that you don't enjoy doing Strapping Young Lad and that particularly the first two records were born of feelings of intense anger and frustration, which you'd rather not explore again. Now, considering how brutal _Alien_ has turned out to be, I guess my first question would be: where did all the rage come from this time around?

Devin Townsend: Well, the fact that the album is heavier, I think, really stems from me and Gene [Hoglan; drums] becoming friends before this record. I mean, we've always gotten along well, but it has always been a very business-like relationship. But before this album, we started hanging out together a lot more and gradually started getting to a real cool place, and from there we started working on some new music, which came out really naturally. And then we started thinking: "Man, this sounds like Strapping." When it came to the lyrical end of things, I tried my best not to go back to _City_, because that record was written ten years ago, and I think it would be emotionally difficult to pretend that I'm twenty three. So, this time I thought about what's going on in life right now that's stressful. And it was like : "Oh my God, there's war, there's tsunamis", and while I didn't want to focus on that, I did want to go to a more aggressive and intense place as a result of that. Right now, I just feel so over-sensitized by everything that's going on in the world right now, that in a certain sense, this is a really cathartic vent, which allows me to reflect on things. So it's almost like a defence mechanism that lets you go: "Fuck it!" And it's like, if I don't do this, I'll end up in Charlie Brown pyjamas on the couch, scared to go out. There's just too much information. Strapping is just a reaction to all of this, and the catalyst to this record is Gene and I just getting together a bunch of really cool songs that served as skeletons for it.

CoC: In my opinion, the new album lies very squarely between _City_ and _Infinity_ in terms of the extreme emotions that it explores from a musical point of view. Given that Gene worked very closely with you on particularly the _Infinity_ record, what was his impact from a creative point of view on _Alien_?

DT: Quite dramatic. The song structures were pretty much just Gene and I in a room, just putting songs together for over a year. Gene is a musician first and foremost, and his instrument is the drums, just as my instrument is the guitar, and we share that bond; that kind of technical way of looking at things. The vision on a lyrical level for this record was definitely my thing, but musically, he played a very big part.

CoC: So, touching on the lyrics for a moment -- run me through some of the concepts and the topics that you're talking about on this album.

DT: Honestly, I don't really know. As a knee-jerk reaction to what I feel, the lyrics are whatever I feel works -- put together in the best way to make things "strange", and that's what it ended up being. The question for me was always centred around what would create a weird energy both for the music and for the lyrics; and that also influenced us into using things like seven-string guitars for this record.

CoC: One often gets a wrong idea of things when you follow the metal press, so you'll forgive me if I'm off-target here, but the impression that I got from all the promotion and all the info that was used to hype this album was that you felt that Strapping Young Lad needed to prove something with the new record, because as good of an album as _SYL_ was, it didn't get as strong a response as some of the things you had done previously.

DT: Absolutely. I mean, _SYL_ was good, but it's... just good, you know? _City_ was great; and as a result of that, I wanted to do something that -- not so much for the audience's sake as for my sake -- would allow me to say: "No really, that's what we are capable of." I really like that record, but it does Strapping as an entity a disservice, because it leads one to believe that it's just a basic metal band. So this record is a basically saying: "No, when Gene and I get together, we actually do shit like this." And because of that, I'm really satisfied with the record on some level, no matter what people will think.

CoC: You were originally planning to use Daniel Bergstrand to do this record, if I'm not mistaken.

DT: That's right, and I would love to work with Daniel again, but this time around there was a scheduling conflict, so we ended up going to Greenhouse in Vancouver -- me and my friend Sean. This record, to me, just had to "smell" a certain way. I don't know if that makes sense.

CoC: Definitely -- I think that it has the same layered, chunky feel to _City_, or even _Physicist_.

DT: Oh yeah, it definitely sounds oppressive.

CoC: The one thing that I personally found on the record is that it does almost the same thing that _Physicist_ does toward the end, in that it almost takes on a life of its own from a musical point of view -- the songs blend into each other in a nearly conceptual way, which makes an acoustic song like "Two Weeks" fit the record perfectly. Didn't you think though, when you were writing that song, that people would think that you're, for lack of a better term, "wimping out"?

DT: Yeah, I did, but the way that I justify that is that Strapping Young Lad is such an oppressive sound that, as a thirty-two year old, one out of ten songs needs to be mellow -- at the very least for the sake of intermission, or for a deep breath before the next scream. The concept of the acoustic song -- it's called "Two Weeks"; two parts in the record or two weeks between a tour, where for that short time you get to be with your wife and with your family and with everything that's important to you and all the problems that come with that. And it's not a good feeling. This song by itself -- I can understand people who would think: "What the hell -- this is like a Pink Floyd cover." But for me it's necessary and in this instance it was necessary to conceptually make that point that it's uncomfortable to come home for that amount of time, as a metaphor, instead of making an album that just constantly goes: "Whaaaaah! Whaaaaaah!" That's why it's also only two minutes. There’s just no peace in that song for me and the way that it ends with that really crazy little minor chord -- it's like I have to have a shower when it's done. In context with all that crazy stuff, I think that "Two Weeks" is really unnerving, more so than its relaxing. Maybe it's relaxing at a party, but in terms of a one on one listening experience, I think it's really ugly in the way that it relates to the whole.

CoC: I'm sure that you have noticed the hype building around Strapping Young Lad for this new record...

DT: <laughs> It has?

CoC: Absolutely, and in the UK especially _Alien_ is already being referred to as the album that will take Strapping Young Lad to the next level.

DT: Well, that's fine. I do think however that what makes Strapping Young Lad effective is that we're not that popular, because with that you get a bit of liberty in how you present yourself. And with that in mind, every time someone says that you've done something good... It's almost a case of not being good enough. I don't crave massive success. I don't want to be the next Axl Rose, and in terms of success I think the most we could achieve is something in the same ballpark as Slipknot, because they're another heavy band that's sort of come up on their own terms. But say Metallica or Guns 'n' Roses...

CoC: Kiss.

DT: <laughs> Or Kiss. But I mean, what would that do to your personal life and to your ability to create the things that people like in the first place? I watched the "Some Kind of Monster" documentary and those guys look shell-shocked. They don't look like they're in it for the metal anymore. They just look like, "Holy fuck, we're millionaires and life sucks." It's so much more confusing for them now and they're in the public eye doing it. I personally hope that we'll sell a couple more records than the last one, but we'll see.

CoC: Looking at the situation that you're in with Strapping Young Lad right now, how does it feel to reflect on the last five years and the fact that you said in the past that there wouldn't be another Strapping record?

DT: I think that it's a case of my mind changing so often, and I'm just so full of contradictions that I guess I could only say that I'm sorry. But even that is half-hearted, because in all honesty, I really would prefer not to have to do Strapping. I would prefer to do humming, ambient music and Devin Townsend band. But, as a reaction to all this stuff that's going on, it comes way too easy, you know? And it's like if you can justify that to yourself as an artist, I think that's what makes it live, because it's not soulless. It's coming from a place where it's cathartic to express these feelings of anger and frustration.

CoC: You've never focused on specific topics like politics and religion though.

DT: Politics and religion don't belong in metal -- at least not in my metal. Maybe it's the Canadian in me, but this shit that's going on is going to happen no matter what I say. And with that, it's like the best you can hope for is to be with the people that you love and just block out and avoid as much of the negative and bad stuff that's happening on the outside as possible.

CoC: Let's talk about the Devin Townsend band for a second -- what is the situation with the new album?

DT: I've got the record done. I just have to record it. I've left the guys with the demos while I'm out here, so they're learning it right now.

CoC: You want to give me an idea of what it might sound like?

DT: <laughs> Fucking awesome. The big trend right now is one song, so it's one song. I'm probably going to put IDs into it, but it's one piece and it's very orchestral.

CoC: So a little like the longer songs on Ocean Machine perhaps?

DT: Some of them, except this album is happy. It's like the emotional opposite to _Alien_; it's like lullabies that still have that heavy edge to them.

CoC: One gets the idea from reading interviews with you that Devin Townsend Band is probably more of a passion for you than Strapping Young Lad.

DT: Probably, but it doesn't make Strapping go away. There's always that other side and I think that maybe a lot of what makes up Strapping Young Lad's allure is just that. It's because to a certain extent what Strapping Young Lad is, is someone being dragged and forced into doing it, if you know what I mean? It's supposed be a statement of burning everything; like "Fuck it all!" Any politics, any religion -- just fuck it all. It's just completely passed the point of saying that things might be okay, because it's not okay. And it's the reaction to that emotion. The next Devin Townsend record is the opposite to that. That record is saying: "It's okay." That's how those two relate to each other. Strapping Young Lad is saying: "Holy fuck!", and Devin Townsend Band is saying: "That's okay."

CoC: Now you'll excuse me for doing this, but it's not every day that I get to do this, so I wanted to ask you a couple of "fan-boy" questions. The first is one I would normally try not to ask anyone in an interview, but the temptation is just too strong: what are you listening to right now?

DT: New Samael. I love Meshuggah and Opeth. Dimmu Borgir and Slipknot.

CoC: I hated the last Slipknot record.

DT: Really?

CoC: I thought it was supremely gay. The new Lamb of God for me just destroyed pretty much every straight metal release that came out last year.

DT: Yeah, that was pretty good. They're amazing. I mean, basically I'm attracted to any band who brings out a record that captures the energy that I'm drawn to in metal. In Flames, Soilwork, Slayer, Slipknot, Vital Remains. I'm a fan of energy and I like to see how guys like that do things, because I do believe that all of it boils down to being a reaction. My music is one sort of reaction and those bands are reacting to other things.

CoC: You did an awesome job producing Lamb of God's _As the Palaces Burn_, by the way.

DT: Dude, those guys are out of control, man. I nearly wiped my brain with that album. We didn't have the facilities to do it properly, so I don't think it came out in the way that I would have liked it to, but hopefully we'll get the chance to work together again.

CoC: "The Death of Music" off your _Ocean Machine_ record is probably my favourite Devin Townsend track, just because of how incredibly honest, emotional and stripped down it sounds. Where was your head when you wrote that song?

DT: It's a fantasy world. It allows me to feel like I've got a place to go, and if it's done correctly it allows other people to at least visit that same headspace as the one I was trying to do when I was attempting to create that sonic escape. "The Death of Music" came about just after I had done the Steve Vai record, and I just felt completely disillusioned with the music industry; nothing about that experience had turned out the way I thought it would.

CoC: To my ears, you sound incredibly vulnerable in that song.

DT: The one thing I want to make clear with my music is that I don't want sympathy for anything that I express with it. It may sound vulnerable, but it's not vulnerable for the sake of sympathy as much as it is for the sake of honesty. I really crave being able to be that honest, because I think that on some level I lie to myself constantly. And with that being so grossly honest about things; it allows me to maybe convince myself that I'm not lying to myself about certain other things, like the fact that I do think that we're okay.

CoC: There have been rumours for years that you and Frederik Thordendal of Meshuggah have been planning to collaborate on a project. What's the status on that?

DT: Well, it's something I'd love to do, and when you're on these tours it's very often a case of [puts on a drunken accent]: "We gotta do an album!", "Yeah, we have to!", "I love you, buddy!" The possibility still exists, although nothing's on the table right now. I have a voice and if he needs a singer, I'll definitely help him out.

CoC: Devin, thanks for your time.

DT: Thanks for everything, man. Hope to see everybody out on tour real soon.

(article submitted 10/3/2005)

1/29/2006 J Smit 8 Devin Townsend - Synchestra
10/19/2001 C Flaaten 8 Devin Townsend - Terria
1/16/1999 P Schwarz 6 Devin Townsend - Infinity
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